Wednesday 19 December 2012

No enjoyment, please, we’re British

Earlier this week, scientists from Newcastle University told us that the recipes of TV chefs are less healthy than ready meals. We were warned sternly:
The recipes seemed to be less healthy than the ready meals on several metrics. Per portion they contained significantly more energy, protein, fat and saturated fat and significantly less fibre than the ready meals.
Today, TV chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall replied, arguing that the problem was portion size.

This argument tells us more about the state of Britain’s mental health than its physical health.

As the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy explained:
The history of every major galactic civilisation tends to pass through three distinct and recognisable phases, those of Survival, Inquiry, and Sophistication, otherwise known as the How, Why, and Where phases. For instance, the first phase is characterised by the question ‘How can we eat?’ the second by ‘Why do we eat?’ and the third by ‘Where shall we have lunch?’.
If Douglas Adams were writing the Hitchhiker’s Guide today, he might well have added a fourth phase, Neurosis, and a corresponding question, “What is the risk?”

The healthiest diet is probably a Mediterranean one. But in Mediterranean countries, no one frets endlessly about “several metrics” like calories, protein, fat or fibre. Food is a source of daily communal pleasure, people sit down to eat proper meals rather than snacking all day, and they eat a varied diet using seasonal produce. They do this even though they are less affluent than us and lack the benefit of our middle class pretensions.

In Britain and America, people are far more neurotic about what they eat. Yet for all the calorie-counting, the problem of obesity is far worse than in Mediterranean countries. A combination of puritanical protestant guilt complexes about pleasure and a reliance on heavily processed foodstuffs is what harms our diets, not celebrity chefs. Because the truth is that most people who watch celebrity chefs on TV and buy their cookbooks never cook their recipes. TV cookery programmes are about entertainment and lifestyle, not practical instruction. Viewers watch Nigella or the Hairy Bikers, then phone for a pizza.

To be fair to Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, he does get to the heart of the matter:
Good food, and a healthy diet, is about variety and balance – and I think those of us who cook on television and publish cookbooks should uphold those fundamental pillars of sound nutrition. But that applies across the whole spectrum of our recipes. It doesn’t necessarily mean we should count all the calories in our recipes and strain to reduce fat at every opportunity.
Deliciousness, originality and excitement are what we are striving for. You can achieve that in recipes that are intended to be hearty main courses or comforting supper dishes, and you can achieve it in original salads that are bursting with fresh, crisp, raw vegetables and fruit. The balance comes in offering readers and viewers a tempting cross-section of all these kinds of dishes. What we can’t do is control which recipes our followers choose to cook, and which to ignore. We can only encourage a balanced approach by ensuring there is deliciousness right across the menu.
The British should learn to relax and enjoy food (and that means the food rather than the associated lifestyle trappings). And they should focus more on the quality than the quantity of life. There is little point in living to 100 if you’ve made every mealtime a misery. Because if you can never eat without consulting a calorie counter, you know the price of everything and the value of nothing.

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